A drowsy state of consciousness

grassy_dreams.jpgABC Radio’s The Philospher’s Zone has just had a two-part special on the problem of consciousness – with particular reference to sleep.

The first and second parts are both from a talk by Professor Giulio Tononi, a neuroscientist from the University of Wisconsin Madison.

Tononi discusses particular difficulties in looking for the ‘neural correlates of consciousness’ and particularly addresses what sleep tells us about conscious states.

In fact, Tononi heads up the Centre for Sleep and Consciousness that aims to understand “the mechanisms and functions of sleep and the neural substrates of consciousness” and gives a fascinating run-through of some of his most recent thinking on the area.

UPDATE: The first part seems to have disappeared off the website. The second part works just as well on its own, however.

Link to Part 1: ‘Higher levels of consciousness’.
Link to Part 2: ‘How Not To Be Unconscious’.

Feeling the heat: sexual arousal in men and women

sexy_black_girl.jpgNew Scientist reports on research recently presented at the Canadian Sex Research Forum that suggests that men and women take about the same time to reach the maximum level of sexual arousal.

The researchers, led by Tuuli Kukkonen, used a thermal imaging camera to measure increased blood flow in the genitals while participants were watching erotic films.

Although the report doesn’t say, it’s common in these sorts of studies for the male and female participants to be shown different films, as males and females tend to be maximally aroused by different types of erotica.

Both the film shown to males, and the film shown to females, will likely have been rated by members of the same sex for how arousing it is, and the films will have been chosen to match the levels of arousal for men and women.

What the report doesn’t say is that the researchers seemed only to have measured physical arousal.

This is important, as we have known since the eighties that while men typically feel psychologically aroused when they’re physically aroused, women can be physically aroused while not feeling psychologically turned-on in the slightest.

In other words, women can show physical arousal without feeling sexy at all. This rarely happens with men.

In fact, a recent study reported that physical arousal in females seems a relatively automatic response to viewing any sort of sexual activity, gay, straight, male or female, despite the fact that the reported level of psychological arousal varied considerably.

Women in this study even showed some physical sexual arousal when watching a video of mating chimpanzees, despite reporting that they felt less sexy than when watching neutral videos of landscapes and scenery.

Why there is such a marked difference in feeling sexy and being aroused in women is still a mystery, but it is something that needs to be borne in mind when interpreting any study (and particularly, any news story) that talks about ‘sexual arousal’ as a single type of experience.

Unfortunately, Kukkonen and colleagues’ study seems to have been widely and uncritically reported as suggesting that women get ‘hot’ in about the same time as men do, when in fact, the picture is far more complex.

Link to NewSci story ‘Women become sexually aroused as quickly as men’.

Best out of 3: BPS Research Digest special

bunch_balloons.jpgThere’s a new edition of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest available online, with the usual collection of updates on the world of psychology research, as well as some special articles by guest writers to celebrate three years of the Digest.

Christian has asked a number of online writers to think of a study from the last three years which has inspired them or changed the way they think about psychology.

First up is Dave and Greta Munger from Cognitive Daily who discuss the startling effect of ‘boundary extension’ – “when you see a scene such as a photograph or even a three-dimensional representation with a clear border, then your memory of that scene tends to extend beyond the original boundary: you remember the scene as larger than it actually was, sometimes even just a few seconds after seeing it.”

They’ll also be forthcoming articles to be published shortly by Dryden Badenoch of The Relaxed Therapist, Jeremy Dean of PsyBlog, Will Meek of Staff Psychologist, Chris Chatham of Developing Intelligence and a short article by me covering a wonderful study on dopamine, stress and unusual experiences.

As well as launching the anniversary special series, there’s also the usual selection of research updates.

This fortnight has articles on a study on the psychology of graphical online interaction (conducted by one of the pioneers of the field, Nick Yee), the widely reported induced ‘shadow self’ experiment, the use of complementary medicine, a study of how much money affects your happiness, the effects of musical tuition on brain development and a study on memory decline in old age.

Link to the BPS Research Digest.

Great neuroaesthetics primer

abstract_texture_1.jpgBrain Ethics has a fantastic primer on neuroaesthetics for those wanting a concise introduction to the field that attempts to use neuroscience to understand art and aesthetic behaviour.

This is currently an exciting but fragmented field and Martin Skov gives an excellent account of the current state of understanding, as well as a guide to the best books available if you want to continue investigating yourself.

Neuroaesthetics can be thought of as a part of a more general study of art and aesthetics as a biological phenomenon. I will follow other proponents of this view (such as Tecumseh Fitch) in calling this broader approach bioaesthetics. The overall goal of bioaesthetics is to answer the three basic biological questions – what?, how?, why? – in regard to aesthetic behaviour in humans: what is art and aesthetics?; how does art and aesthetics spring from the brain?; and why did this cognitive ability evolve in humans?

Link to ‘A short bibliographic guide to the emerging field of bioaesthetics’.

Why do people participate in research?

multiple_choice.jpgWe often assume that psychology and neuroscience experiments tell us general things about how humans think and behave, but little attention is given to whether the people who volunteer for research studies are representative of the wider population.

PsyBlog has a concise summary of a recent study that looked at the sort of people who volunteer for research studies and how they differ from the general population.

Narcissists are over-represented amongst non-participators, as are those low on assertiveness. On the other hand, those high on obsessive-compulsive, histrionic, self-sacrificing and intrusive/needy measures are more likely to participate.

What is not clear is how these sort of differences affect different types of studies.

For example, will a study that is investigating memory by significantly affected by the fact that the participants are likely to be less narcissistic than the general population?

Link to PsyBlog post ‘Why do people participate in research?’.

Flying high

brain_hot_air_balloon.jpgOh. My. God. It’s a hot air balloon in the shape of an anatomically accurate brain. For hire.

According to the website, the brain balloon’s mission is to:

To capture the attention of the world and direct it toward understanding the importance of the human brain and the diseases, disorders, and injuries that afflict it.

To teach and encourage all people to seek a high purpose and achieve their potential.

To create a strong symbol of hope and human possibility.

To celebrate intelligence, promote education, and ignite imaginations!

There are stoned neuroscientists behind this, I swear.

Link to Brain Balloon website.

When I grow up…

oko.jpgChild support organisation KidLink has a section that collects children’s desires for future careers. The pages for psychologist and psychiatrist are simultaneously touching, alarming and hilarious.

Anastasiya from Kazakstan: My dream-is to be a dentist or psychologist. Why? Because I want to help people and get a lot of money.

Let’s hope Anastasia isn’t planning on working for the NHS.

Kirsty from Australia: I have no idea what I will be! Either a vet, olympic sprinter or maybe a professional soccer, tennis or volleyball player? Maybe even a actress, cause i did drama. Or a singer. I like singing, I am in the chior and I have done a solo once. Oh, I know, if I don’t get professional for any of those sports I could always be a sports teacher. Or maybe even a psychologist. Or a stand up comedian. I don’t know yet. But I love sport, so i will probably do something sporty. A surfer? I like swimming in the sea, not pools. And I go to the beach a lot.

Kay Redfield Jamison? Is that you?

Chinetta from United States: i want to become a psychiatrist and i want to drive a porsche and i want a big house

Chinetta is obviously one of the America’s few remaining children who have yet to meet a psychiatrist.

Alexandria from United States: When I grow up I would like to become a psychiatrist because I really enjoy helping others. It makes me feel good when I help some one cope with their issues and see them benefit from the advice that I give them. In order to do so I plan on going to college for as long as it takes. I would like to go to Spelman but I am not sure if it is the right school to study for Psychiaty. I am determined to make it though I will go to school for as long as it takes as long as I am able to save at least one person from hurt and sorrow.

Sounds like you’ll make an excellent psychiatrist Alexandria.

Julia from Belarus: At fisrt I want to get higher education.Earlier I wanted to become a barrister but in our country it’s impossible & now I want to become a psychologist.Like every normal man I want that my work will bring me,of course,money & will make me happy.But in general I would like to be a poet — it is my dream & if I have a real chance in order to realize it I will use this chance what’s more I write verses & my friends don’t find them bad.It is all.

Link to KidLink careers: psychologist.
Link to KidLink careers: psychiatrist.